The persistence of memory

Nygil Matthews, DPN - Alzheimer's disease research

Photo caption (above): Nygil Matthews, DPN, tests reflexes of a volunteer for an Alzheimer’s disease study. Matthews is a research nurse practitioner with the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

Pop quiz! What disease is the sixth most common cause of death, affects over 5.3 million Americans, and is the only major disease with rapidly increasing death rates—but ranks 16th for research funding? If you answered “Alzheimer’s disease,” you are correct. Unfortunately, no one wins this quiz—because by 2050, it’s predicted that 13.8 million Americans will have the condition.

That’s why researchers in the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology maintain a steady focus on Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative illness that can lurk silently for decades while brain lesions develop. Associate Dean for Gerontology Sanjay Asthana, MD, professor and head of the division, leads the research program and directs the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC). Reversing Alzheimer’s disease once cognitive symptoms begin hasn’t succeeded, so researchers hope instead to minimize effects of the disease by stalling it at a non-symptomatic state. Cynthia Carlsson, MD, MS, associate professor, developed methods to detect “sentinel” biomarkers (amyloid and tau protein) in cerebrospinal fluid, which may help determine Alzheimer’s disease risk and allow early intervention. Similarly, Sterling Johnson, PhD, professor, uses advanced brain imaging methods to detect early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

Another pillar of the research program is Alzheimer’s disease prevention. Ozioma Okonkwo, PhD, assistant professor, studies why a small number of people who develop brain lesions remain cognitively normal. His research has shown that exercise is critical for reducing amyloid burden and preserving brain function.

Above all, researchers want Alzheimer’s disease patients and caregivers to know they are not alone. Many members of the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology are also affiliated with the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, which operates a network of 39 memory clinics in Wisconsin and Michigan that offer memory screening, physician assessments, and information about resources available to support Alzheimer’s disease patients and caregivers. Steven Barzci, MD, professor (CHS), leads statewide efforts to enhance training in geriatric medicine for health care professionals.

To support all of these endeavors, an umbrella effort called the UW Initiative to End Alzheimer’s was launched in 2016. The initiative provides a framework for philanthropic donors to understand the breadth of the Badger approach.

As the US population ages, the future depends on Alzheimer’s disease prevention, outreach, and research. Faculty and staff members at UW-Madison are relentlessly focused on making a difference for patients and families.